Female genital mutilation and its intrinsic relationship to human rights and democracy issues were the focus of University sociology professor Elizabeth Boyle’s discussion Monday afternoon in Ford Hall.
“If we want countries to develop representative governments and have countries enforce the rule of law, I don’t know if it is appropriate to pass laws that go against the popular sentiment of those countries,” Boyle said.
Boyle separated female genital mutilation into three semi-distinct categories: “Sunna” removes the hood of the clitoris, a clitoridectomy eliminates the entire clitoris as well as the labia minora and infibulations take away the clitoris and labia and sow the vagina shut.
Female genital mutilation has been outlawed in Britain, Canada, France, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States. The small percentages of U.S. immigrants who still wish to continue the custom usually have a midwife illegally perform the task, Boyle said.
Boyle said democracy proponents ignore that many cultures, such as Egyptian cultures, support female genital mutilation – even though it’s illegal. Overlooking cultural influences can hamper Westernized ideals of individualism, national autonomy and sovereignty and erases the line between the public and private spheres, Boyle said.
“Many women get circumcised for the same reason males have it done here,” Boyle said. “They don’t want to be teased, it’s family tradition and it’s considered to be cleaner.”
In 1995, an estimated 15 percent of the world’s females experienced infibulations of some sort, Boyle wrote in her recently-published book “Female Genital Cutting: Cultural Conflict in the Global Community.” Twenty-four countries in Africa still practice female genital mutilation, almost exclusively areas near the Horn of Africa or sub-Saharan territories, Boyle said Monday.
Even if conducted in a sterile hospital, female genital mutilation has caused tetanus, internal bleeding, hemorrhaging, urinary tract infections, vulval abscesses, sterility, incontinence, depression and death, Boyle said.
She said there are three main reasons why the practice occurs: rites of passage, group elder teachings and removal of “extra and unnecessary body parts,” where the “child soul” resides.
“There is a belief dating back centuries about the bisexuality of the gods,” Boyle said. “Everyone is supposedly born with two souls, so removing them is linked to healthy gender development.”
But in some rare cases in Chad, Boyle said, clitoridectomies have become a forbidden fad for some teenage girls who seek the procedure without parental permission.
Up until 1950, clitoridectomies were conducted by U.S. and British doctors to treat nymphomania, melancholia, masturbation, homosexuality and epilepsy.
Boyle said she deems female genital mutilation unnecessary but said she feels alienated by some Western activists who fail to take into account other cultures’ right to their own opinions.
“I don’t think it’s ethnocentric to be against it, but it feels like a lot of the people against it are against it for the wrong reasons,” she said.
Boyle’s talk was part of the Feminist Studies Colloquium Series sponsored by the women’s studies department.